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Brainbow of a Hippocampus

Microetching on photographic paper, 2007, by Jean Livet, Ryan Draft and Jeff Lichtman

Coming across this lithograph, one immediately assumes you are looking at a textured work of abstract-expressionism. A blend (though coloured) of ­the Japanese sumi-e tradition with traces of Pollock-like spatter-paint. Then you remember you are not in an art gallery but a science faculty art exhibition – i.e. art generated from scientific exploration. Also, you wonder at the title: what is a brainbow and what is a hippocampus? It turns out this is an actual cross-sectional image of a mouse’s brain, the hippocampus being the part of the brain which is apparently located deep in the temporal lobe and plays a major role in learning and memory. The ‘brainbow’ (according to the curator’s note) generates its distinctive colours because fluorescent proteins are expressed at different ratios when exposed photographically. What we have here (apart from ‘neuro-art’ at literally its purist rendering) is a very beautiful type of neo-naturalism which demonstrates the theory that the universe organises itself into repeatable patterns and forms which are all very scalable, from the truly microscopic (neurons) to the gargantuan: for example, lightning bolts and galactic superclusters which all share similar characteristics. In essence, it’s a photograph, albeit of something completely un-photographable. Hence the wonder of science!

For me it recalls Susan Sontag’s polemic On Photography in which she questions the ethical, practical and aesthetic modalities of the photographic tradition. In it, she makes the claim that photography creates a “chronic voyeuristic relation” between humans and the objects of their gaze rendered “attainable” through a photographic lens. It’s a cynical take, but Sontag’s main criticism of photography was her claim that it fosters an inclination towards anti-intervention; the practitioner of the camera is disinclined to position themselves as an interloper between lens and subject. She argued this led to a culture of apathy to act or respond to events unfolding in real time which a camera lens, unlike a painter’s laboured brush strokes, is able to capture and so covets. Her main thesis was of course the relation between photography and politics, or the ethical dilemma raised by a photographer who would rather take a photo of an extreme act (Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Girl” for example, or Sam Nzima’s “Soweto Boy”) rather than intervene to prevent the act from happening or assist in the unfolding process of its enactment, its consequences.

Brainbow of a Hippocampus places this into context though by challenging this assumption. It’s an image so removed from the possibility of usual human observation that any interventionist act cannot possibly displace the unfolding agency of the subject itself. Its very happening occurs as a matter of fact, interdependent of the “artist as observer”, and in spite of any attention cast towards it. As it stands, the image captured is so primitive and yet simultaneously so complex as to almost be utterly and entirely a representation of its perfect form. In its primacy we capture its sophistication. Of course one could argue that a photograph of a rock is likewise so inanimate as to be entirely free from the photographer’s intervention, expect that’s not quite true, is it? Our very proximity and the fact we share the same earth-bound environment means that however we decide to photograph the rock, the end product will only ever be an image of a rock plus any degree of human intervention: artistic sensibility, choice of camera lens, choice of exposure, angle and degree of approach, questions of selection (why that rock?), choices of presentation (how is the rock positioned?) and so on. But when attempting to capture phenomena which are so large or so small as to defy our interpolation with them, we then arrive at a more authentic result. In other words, though the end result looks artistic, it’s inviolably and totally scientific. It is presented as a work of art which is in fact a product of anti-art.

Image courtesy of Jeff Licthman Lab, Harvard University.


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